BRENTWOOD – About 80 people packed into a meeting room in Brentwood Town Hall on Jan. 20 to learn more about and discuss the implications of a draft ordinance to make the town a sanctuary city.
Former state Sen. David Harrington moderated the conversation. Mount Rainier Chief of Police Michael Scott, Takoma Park Councilman Jarrett Smith, Hyattsville Councilman Joseph Solomon and CASA de Maryland policy analyst Julio Murillo participated as panelists.
Mount Rainier, Takoma Park and Hyattsville are all sanctuary cities.
The term “sanctuary cities” refers to jurisdictions that decide d they will restrict their assistance with federal immigration agents to detain unauthorized immigrants. The precise qualities of what that means for each jurisdiction varies based on their individual legislation.
Brentwood’s town council is currently drafting an ordinance to make the jurisdiction of about 3,200 people a sanctuary city. According to Mayor Rocio Treminio-Lopez, about 45 percent of their population is Latino.
Among other provisions, Brentwood’s current draft stipulates “no official or employee of the Town of Brentwood may inquire into an individual’s citizenship or immigration status” and “no official or employee may utilize or allow to be utilized Town resources to support federal civil immigration enforcement operations or activities.”
Scott, Smith and Solomon explained what the significance of becoming a sanctuary city has been for their municipalities.
Scott had opposed the sanctuary city ordinance for Mount Rainier.
“My concern always was, we can as a government and police department and a community put policies and procedures in place that protect our most vulnerable residents without shining a light on what we do,” Scott said. “I think that by increasing our visibility we reduced the ability of us to keep our residents safe from what I consider to be an oppressive national policy.”
He said the other work the police department has accomplished over the years to increase the immigrant community’s trust in the police department over the years has also been very important.
“There is a large degree of trust and people are not afraid (to talk to the police) regardless of immigration status,” Scott said.
He said once the fear of interacting with police officers diminished, relationships between the immigrant community and the police department improved in Mount Rainier.
In the 1980s, Takoma Park became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to enact a sanctuary city ordinance.
“It should not be a scary decision. This is a time when Americans in this country need to stand together and help our neighbors,” Smith said. “I encourage you to pass an ordinance that provides protections to those who are the most vulnerable.”
Solomon said prior to their sanctuary city ordinance, members of Hyattsville’s immigrant community expressed their reluctance to report criminal activities they were victims of because they feared the police would ask about their immigration status.
“Passing legislation in this way provides them with a sigh of relief, a level of comfort that when I contact my local government…they’re not asking me about my immigration status, that’s not first question in their mind,” Solomon said. “Their first question is, ‘am I okay,’ and I think that’s the big welcome sign we want to put on all of our communities.”
The panelists emphasized the purpose of sanctuary cities is not to protect violent criminals.
“Anybody who breaks the law, and there’s a criminal infraction that they committed, we agree, they have to go into the criminal justice system and suffer consequences, especially gang members,” Murillo said. “But, if you marginalize a growing part of the community that is not interacting with the police, that is no longer an immigrant issue, but a community issue.”
Several residents raised concerns about Brentwood’s reputation should the ordinance fail. One person said he has heard members of the immigrant community tell each other about places in the region they should not go because they do not feel safe there.
“I don’t want Brentwood to be one of those places,” he said.
While the majority of community speakers supported the motion to make Brentwood a sanctuary city, others voiced their opposition or caution.
One resident asked how the ordinance would affect the town’s budget or funding.
Last January, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that would deny federal funds to sanctuary cities. A federal judge permanently blocked that ruling in November.
Scott said that Mount Rainier’s police department was not eligible for a federal grant because of Trump’s executive order, although that took place before the November ruling.
Several residents said they thought the conversation was one-sided in favor of sanctuary cities.
“Everyone here seems to be pro the issue,” one community member said. “I thought this would be an open discussion…we need to have another meeting so views on the other side can be heard.”
However, as Harrington pointed out, Scott did not support Mount Rainier becoming a sanctuary city.
Another topic of discussion was whether or not the ordinance should go to a council vote or referendum. The town council has not yet decided on that matter.
The residents who fought that the vote should be a referendum also expressed their opposition to the town becoming a sanctuary city.
One resident, who said he was in favor of making Brentwood a sanctuary city, said he believed if the ordinance went to referendum, then all adults in Brentwood should be able to vote, not just adult citizens.
“I’m concerned about a referendum where people who are U.S. citizens have the ability to vote on the rights of people who aren’t U.S. citizens,” he said. “It’s morally wrong.”
State Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-47A) said that debate on both sides of the issue was healthy, and that it was especially important to put the conversation regarding sanctuary cities in the context of current events.
“I think people are kind of resisting what’s going on in the Trump administration,” Tarlau said. “People want to show that…we are welcoming cities, that people that live here, that pay taxes, that work hard, we shouldn’t go out of our way to make sure that they leave this country. This sanctuary movement has to be seen in the context of what’s going on in the Trump administration and the rhetoric that’s going on.”
Participants in the meeting compiled a list of questions for the town government regarding the ordinance. Brentwood Town Administrator C. Reginald Bagley said the town council will likely address the questions during their work session on Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.
Making Brentwood a sanctuary city has been a topic of conversation since the last election in May. Several council members ran on a platform of introducing a sanctuary city ordinance for Brentwood.
Bagley said the city will likely hold another community forum on the topic with another set of panelists. He said the panel may include attorneys who are knowledgeable about the “nuances of the ordinance” as well as a representative from a jurisdiction that considered becoming a sanctuary city but decided against it.
At the end of the forum, Harrington noted it was “one of the safest and richest conversations I’ve seen.”
“Whether or not you realize it, Brentwood can be the beacon of light for what a community can be,” Harrington said. “I hope as you go through this process, what it’s about is how to make Brentwood a great community.”
If Brentwood passes this ordinance, it would join a growing number of municipalities in Prince George’s County that have voted to become sanctuary cities. On Jan. 11, the Cheverly town council voted unanimously to pass a sanctuary city ordinance.
Cheverly Councilman Julian Ivey views that decision as part of a wider region-wide movement to support immigrant communities.
“(The Prince George’s Municipal Association) met a handful of months ago to meet and talk about this specific movement and leading from the grassroots, the municipal governments passing these ordinances without the county council doing it or the state doing it,” Ivey said. “Just showing our community we stand with them however we can. I am a supporter of every municipality in the state putting forward these protections for these individuals.”
Murillo agreed local jurisdictions have a vital role to play in protecting immigrants.
“They know that they can’t fix the immigration system on their own, but what they can do, they can step up and make sure that their immigrant residents who are scared can feel comfortable in interacting with the city government and with the police,” he said. “This matters to our folks, because they’re constantly in fear, and that stress not only takes a toll on them, but on their families as well. So by providing these folks with the peace of mind, at least when they’re home, makes a huge difference.”